AHL Weekly: Playoff push begins

AHL standings || Scores and schedules || League leaders

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The AHL All-Stars have departed Hershey, and with the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross now a fond memory, the American Hockey League is set to resume its 75th anniversary season with a 10-week push toward the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Sixteen teams will qualify for the postseason tournament – four from each division, with two possible exceptions: If the fifth-place squad in the eight-team East Division finishes with more points than the fourth-place team in the Atlantic, that team would cross over and compete in the Atlantic Division playoffs. Similarly, if the fifth-place team in the eight-team West Division finishes higher than the fourth-place team in the North, it would move over and compete in the North Division postseason bracket.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is one team that almost certainly won’t need to worry about a crossover, though. After beginning the season with nine straight victories and putting together subsequent winning streaks of six and seven games, the Penguins entered the All-Star break atop the East Division and the entire AHL standings at 36-12-0-0 (72 points). Goaltenders Brad Thiessen (18-4-0, 2.15, .916) and John Curry (18-8-0, 2.46, .906) each have 18 wins for the Penguins, who are bidding for their first division crown since 2007-08.

Two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey (29-14-1-2) won six straight games prior to the break to take over second place in the East with 61 points, three better than a Norfolk club (24-14-7-3) looking for its first postseason berth since 2007. The first-year Charlotte Checkers (57 points), who are an impressive 15-8-1-0 on the road, bounced back from a slow start to insert themselves into the middle of the playoff picture. And behind AHL leading scorer Corey Locke (16-44-60) and top rookie goal-scorer Bobby Butler (21-11-32), fifth-place Binghamton (53) would currently cross over to the Atlantic Division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

Manchester and Portland alternated occupancy of first place in the Atlantic Division throughout the first half, and the Monarchs (64 points) used a three-game winning streak prior to the break to move one point up on the Pirates (63), who have won 11 of their last 14 outings. It’s then an 11-point drop to the third-place Worcester Sharks (22-18-2-6, 52 points), who now hold the division’s final guaranteed postseason entry. Fourth-place Connecticut (22-20-3-1, 51 points) has lost six of eight but still sits just a point back of Worcester and two behind Binghamton for the crossover spot. Providence (48), Springfield (48) and Bridgeport (44) also remain well within the playoff race in the Atlantic.

The West Division remains the AHL’s strongest from top to bottom, with three teams tied for first place and the top seven clubs separated by a total of just five points. San Antonio (29-18-2-0) and Houston (28-19-1-3) – neither of which made the 2010 playoffs – are deadlocked atop the division with Milwaukee (26-13-2-6), which has reached the postseason every year since 2003. Peoria (28-17-2-1, 59 points) and Oklahoma City (26-17-2-5, 59 points) each sit one point off the pace, and three teams which qualified for last year’s playoffs – defending conference champion Texas (58 points), Chicago (55) and Rockford (44) – are currently on the outside looking in as the calendar turns to February. However, the Stars are 3-0-0-1 in their last four outings; the Wolves play 17 of their last 28 games at home; and no team in the AHL has played fewer games thus far than the IceHogs’ 45.

Backed by goaltender Curtis Sanford, who leads the AHL in both goals-against average (1.72) and save percentage (.939), defending North Division champion Hamilton hit the break back on top of the field at 27-15-1-4 (59 points). But Manitoba (26-14-1-5, 58 points) and Lake Erie (24-21-3-4, 55 points) are hot on the Bulldogs’ heels; the Moose are 14-4-1-1 since Dec. 14, and the Monsters have won eight of 10 as they search for their first-ever postseason berth.

Toronto (53 points) checks in only two points back of Lake Erie for the North’s final guaranteed spot and is set to play 20 of its last 30 games at Ricoh Coliseum, while Abbotsford (51), Grand Rapids (50), and Rochester (47) also remain in the hunt.

The AHL’s regular season resumes with contests in Charlotte and Oklahoma City on Thursday before the weekend brings 13 games on Friday and 14 more on Saturday.

STARS OF THE SHOW … Back-to-back capacity crowds at the Giant Center in Hershey and a live international television audience witnessed the best talent the AHL has to offer during last weekend’s All-Star Classic, and there were no shortage of memorable moments. It began in Sunday’s Skills Competition, when Milwaukee forward Linus Klasen brought fans to their feet and earned a spot on national highlight shows with his 360-degree spin-o-rama goal in the breakaway relay.

On Monday, the AHL Hall of Fame welcomed four new members – Harry Pidhirny, Maurice Podoloff, Larry Wilson and local favorite Mitch Lamoureux – at a morning ceremony emceed by Mike Emrick, the award-winning voice of the NHL on NBC and a former AHL broadcaster. That night in the AHL All-Star Game, forward Andrew Gordon of the hometown Hershey Bears set an event record by scoring just 16 seconds after the opening face-off, and Binghamton rookie standout Bobby Butler was named MVP of the Eastern Conference’s 11-8 win after tallying a goal and adding three assists.

Thirty-two of the 40 skaters in the game recorded at least one point and only Gordon, Robert Bortuzzo and Francis Wathier netted more than one goal. Bridgeport rookie Rhett Rakhshani (1-3-4) also had four points for the East; Alexandre Giroux’s fifth career All-Star goal tied an event record, and Corey Locke extended his own record with his 10th and 11th career All-Star points.

GRAHAME SNEAKING TOWARD TOP … Rookie AHL All-Star Mark Olver and second-year pro Ryan Stoa have been Lake Erie’s offensive catalysts of late, but a key factor in the Monsters’ recent resurgence has been the play of veteran goaltender John Grahame, the AHL’s Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month for January.

Grahame, who entered the month having made only 11 appearances for the entire season, went 10-3-0 (1.85, .925) in 13 January outings to help lift the Monsters from the North Division cellar on Jan. 1 to third place – and within four points of the top spot – by month’s end. Nearly 12 years removed from backstopping Providence to the 1999 Calder Cup title as a second-year pro, Grahame has allowed two or fewer goals in six straight appearances and 14 of his last 18 for Lake Erie, and his 2.13 goals-against average is now good for sixth among all AHL goaltenders.

Grahame, who also won the 2004 Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, has not dropped back-to-back games since losing at Rockford and Grand Rapids on Dec. 18 and 26. He became the first AHL goaltender since Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s John Curry in March 2008 to win 10 games in a single calendar month.

ETC. … Total attendance in 28 games last Friday and Saturday was 188,960 – an average of 6,749 fans per contest… With a 10-2-1-0 mark in January, Houston recorded its first 10-win month since going 11-2-3-0 in January 2003, en route to winning the Calder Cup… Two-time Calder Cup champion Kyle Wilson, who was assigned to Springfield by parent-club Columbus on Jan. 21, has begun his Falcons career on a four-game scoring streak (3-3-6)… Hamilton’s Dustin Boyd, who notched his second hat trick of the season on Jan. 26, has racked up 14 goals – and zero assists – in just 19 games for the Bulldogs… Reebok/AHL Player of the Week Blake Geoffrion of Milwaukee totaled 10 points (4-6-10) between Oct. 30 and Jan. 20 before erupting for nine points (4-5-9) in a four-game span from Jan. 21-29… Adirondack is 5-0-0-0 vs. Syracuse this season and 10-29-2-3 against the rest of the AHL… After snapping an 0-6-1-1 skid vs. Rockford with a 5-2 home-ice win on Friday, Grand Rapids traveled to Peoria and ended an 0-9-0-1 drought against the Rivermen with a 3-2 triumph on Saturday… The AHL uses a divisional playoff format, but a look at the conference standings shows the top eight teams in the Western Conference – Milwaukee (60), San Antonio (60), Houston (60), Hamilton (59), Peoria (59), Oklahoma City (59), Manitoba (58) and Texas (58) – separated by just two points… Manchester is a combined 11-1-1-0 against the AHL’s two entries from the Nutmeg State (5-0-1-0 vs. Bridgeport, 6-1-0-0 vs. Connecticut)… Chicago leads the AHL in power-play efficiency (22.7 percent) but ranks last on the penalty kill (75.7 percent)… Albany will play a pair of games in Atlantic City, N.J. this week; the Devils take on Hershey on Friday and battle Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Monday in a tilt which was originally scheduled for Dec. 12.